The Rules of Sign Design

What you need to know before making the big investment.

Retail Sign Design… Be Understood

A sign doesn’t need to explain the business they represent but they definitely need to be legible so the typography you choose for your sign is paramount to creating a sign that delivers a clear message. This doesn’t mean your retail logo needs to read like a book but when adding an explanatory byline to your sign to inform the public exactly what your business offers choose a font that is easy to read. Ask most designers what their least favorite font is and they will often say Helvetica but for utilitarian purposes it’s by far the most useful and used font on the planet. It may be plain but it just plain works. However there are many fonts that are just as legible and provide a touch more flavor to your sign design and here is an excellent list of alternatives to Helvetica.

Retail Sign Design… The Right Fit

The old adage that clothes make the man kind of fits when it comes to designing a retail sign for a businesses too. Like signs all clothes serve a utilitarian purpose but also like clothes, signs convey our personalities so they need to be tailored to fit each business. This is one of the reasons you can’t just install any sign you want in a shopping center. The businesses around you are impacted by how you present yourself. So you need to consider that aspect before you have a sign design created for your business.

The Pitfalls of Retail Sign Design

Virtually all signs have to go through an approval process so it’s best to understand what that process is before making a commitment to a sign design or ideally before you sign a lease on your new business location. Every shopping center and most landlords have a sign criteria that must be met when you install a sign so if you are looking at signing a lease find out what that criteria is beforehand because you don’t want to be surprised by a design criteria that is going to limit your marketing potential by causing you to have an under-performing sign. The sign criteria of your landlord will likely be very close to the sign criteria set forth by any community review board and local sign manufacturers will be able to walk you through the specifics of the local sign code.

Potentially your sign will have to go through the hands of 3 different entities that have the potential to sideline your plans. The sign area is also something that has to be factored in and it’s usually determined by the square footage of your building fascia the sign is installed on. And if you are in a mall environment the space, location and type of sign is usually predetermined; the upside is that it will be easy to assess the specifics of the size, style and placement of your sign.

Retail Signs… Location, Location, Location

Speaking of performance the location of your business sign is almost as important as the location of your business and your sign’s location will have a tremendous impact on how successful your sign design will be and in turn how successful your business will be. Signs are part of the landscape and their effectiveness will be impacted by their surroundings. If your location is wide open and you are allowed to install a pole or a monument sign you will be positioned to have great visibility for your sign but if your business is in a location that is surrounded by trees there’s a good chance you sign will be obscured and may be heavily shaded in the daytime. And take into consideration the traffic that moves by your business location and how that sign is situated in relation to the traffic. How fast is the flow of traffic, how far the sign sets back from the road, how shady or how bright, all of these environmental aspects will influence your signs visibility and in turn it’s potential impact on your business.

Electric Signs… Sticker Shock

Signs, good signs that will hold up for a long period of time aren’t cheap. The design of your sign is the cheapest part of the project and some sign companies give away the design just to get your business. Some sign shops are good at this because they have an experienced sign designer but most aren’t and if you go that route you’re going to likely end up with a sign that blends in with the rest of the signs around your business. The thing to understand about signs is that they are a commodity and their cost is determined in large by the materials used, so the profit margins on signs can be very tight. So because the margins are tight, sign shops need to squeeze as much profit as they can from each sign they manufacture and install. There’s only a few places that a sign company can make up the price and one of those is in material. Internally illuminated exterior signs are made from either aluminum or sheet metal and sheet metal rusts and riveted metal and aluminum can leak if not sealed properly. So of course the lowest bidder often goes the route of using riveted sheet metal instead of welded aluminum and maybe they only use one coat of paint instead of two. They may also pay less to their employees because it’s much easier to bend and rivet sheet metal than it is to bend and weld aluminum, which actually takes a skilled craftsman to do well. The other way that companies can save money is by scaling back on the illumination; single tube neon instead of double tube which means your sign will be very dim and much harder to see.

There are a wide variety of retail sign types and myriad of ways to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers that are eager to save a few bucks, Just make sure you hire a well respected sign company that has a history of building high quality products. Often sign shops will brand their signs with a small sticker that is usually visible on the bottom corner of a sign. Look around a bit and you’ll see the sticker of the company that built many of the signs in your community. This is a good indicator that they know what they are doing and put out a quality product.

Environmental graphics  – When a sign isn’t a sign

Wherever your business is located there are going to be restrictions as to what you can do for signage…size, location and quality are all controlled tightly by the powers that be, but often there are ways you can supplement your signage with additional graphics that fall outside of the realm of signs and therefore aren’t regulated like signs. These can vary from window graphics to how your building is painted and the exterior decor. Awnings can change the whole nature of a building’s exterior and are impossible to not notice.

So ends the first iteration of my rules of sign design.

This is a big subject and I will continue to add to it as I find the time and if you have any other input or additional ideas as to what I should also address I’m all ears; just shoot me an email.

ImageCo is the online portfolio of Tim Garner; I’ve been a commercial artist for over 25 years and I help businesses and individuals throughout the US and Canada sell their products, their services, and their ideas. I was born in the Southwest, raised in the Midwest, lived in the South for a bit and now call the Northwest home. I’m a fine artist by training, a graphic designer by choice and I’ve designed everything from billboards to business cards. In my spare time I feed a passion for photography, art and writing. Check out my other creative work at

Accolades for ImageCo

Cool Springz Trampoline Park

Tim, I had a marketing person come in last week, someone who has many years of experience, who told me my logo is awesome (I agree). It's vibrant, happy, bold and fun. (I agree) You are very talented and thank you for sharing your talent with me. My best wishes to you as this year wraps up and we head into a new one!

Tamara Portnoy
Cool Springz Trampoline Park
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Veda Communications - Logo Design

The best thing about working with Tim is that he immediately grasps all the subtleties of a logo design – the feeling, the client image, the color, the shape, the ease of use in different print or web conditions – and then he easily and quickly translates that into an outstanding piece of art that works on many levels. He gets it, and that makes working with him a pleasure.

Mike Neer/Owner
Veda Communications Co.
Fresno, California

FSAok - Logo Design

We had been working with another logo design firm, but after two frustrating weeks we gave up on them and decided to look elsewhere. With a rapidly approaching deadline we hired Tim. He made our project a priority and managed to create a logo design that our team liked in just a few days. Tim was great! With some - slight - modifications to his original logo design we were ready to go. His logo design was fantastic and it captured the 'personality' of our product on his first try. We would definitely hire Tim again!

Fred Hawkins/CEO
Villanova, Pennsylvania

800PhoneUSA - Logo and Web Design

Tim created the perfect logo design for us and I feel fortunate that we found him. Not only is he an honest, ethical and a straight-arrow businessman, he was a total pleasure to work with. We worked with some other logo designers on this but didn't like any of the logo designs they came up with. We ended up going with Tim's very first presentation and couldn't be happier. We liked his work on the logo design so much that we also had him do our website! We love that too.

Chris Heidkamp/Owner
Phoenix, Arizona

OEMpanels - Web Design

I originally stumbled upon ImageCo's website by mistyping the address of the design firm we were presently working with. I immediately liked what I saw and asked ImageCo to review our new website. His comments reflected my thoughts exactly so I hired him and never looked back. Tim's keen design sense and insight into effective web design sets him apart from most designers. Over the years I've relied on Tim for all of our graphics needs, including web design and user interface design. Tim's design work has not only helped our company look more professional but it's also helped us to attract the "right" customers to our website. Thanks Tim!

Bob Lambert/President
Newport News Virginia

Columbus Advertising

The first time I worked with Tim, I was looking for someone to design a client's site. As head of a small advertising agency, I had a client with strong ideas of what they wanted. Tim did an exceptional job of interpreting their needs and created a site that is pleasing to visit and highly functional. I have worked with Tim on subsequent projects, primarily because he possesses a great sense of which concepts will work and the tact to explain why others won't.

Peter Columbus/President
Columbus Advertising
Torrance, California

eCareerCenter - Web Design, Content Development

ImageCo was just what I needed when I started my internet business, eCareerCenter. I was not really sure of how I wanted to present my new company and Tim really helped me focus my thoughts into short and long term goals. I had a certain style I was trying to portray and ImageCo really helped create it for me in a way that was different than what was already out there. As I look back on my first website launch, I am thrilled at how it turned out. I remember one part of the design process, I was trying to find pictures for my "Tour" section. Tim mentioned he had just what I needed. I am a bit of a control freak and was not sure how they were going to look. When I saw which ones were selected and how he designed the section, I knew I selected the right designer for my project.

Jeff Fleming/Managing Director
Scottsdale Arizona

Arctic Skye Family Practice

When I opened my new medical practice, I wanted a logo design to reflect not only my clinic's name, but also our Alaskan location. Tim took the time to learn what my clinic was like and what I wanted in a logo design. My new logo design reflects his skill and the time he took to understand what I needed. I enjoyed working with Tim in the design process, and hope to work with him again in the future.

Rebecca White M.D.
Arctic Skye Family Practice
MatSu Valley Alaska

Duke University - Logo Design

Tim has been a real pleasure to work with on the logo design for my TechXcite program. He provided several initial logo designs that my team and I considered. Then, through a series of iterations we arrived at the final logo design, which we are very happy with.

Tim was not only patient with this process, but he provided positive energy that kept the process productive. I would absolutely recommend him enthusiastically."

Gary Ybarra
Duke University
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Professor of the Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies
Raleigh, NC

BodyQuest Pilates - Logo Design

"Tim at ImageCo was fantastic to work with!
His creative logo design has given me the flexibility to market my business in various capacities. I would certainly consult with Tim on future projects."

Mirea Pineda/Owner
BodyQuest Pilates
Phoenix, Arizona

Digital Eye Research - Logo Design

I looked at many different logo design firms before choosing ImageCo and ImageCo is by far the best. Tim at ImageCo helped us create a clean, cool, hip image for our company. He nailed it dead on! After working with Tim I would recommend his company to anyone looking for great design work at a great price. ImageCo understands branding in today’s competitive marketplace and we at Digital Eye Research will use ImageCo for all of our future branding needs.

Tony Galeassi/President
Digital Eye Research
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Shades Unlimited - Logo and Web Design

We came to Tim Garner to help guide us through the process of creating a new logo and website for our custom window treatment company. We couldn't have been happier with our experience. The result is a design and writing that possess clarity, simplicity, and beauty. Tim's assets are many, but his work embodies a rare combination of technical ability and artistic sensibility.

Sal Deluca
Shades Unlimited
Wapwallopen, Pennsylvania